Smoke Eaters On The Front Lines
Backpacker|July - August 2021
The new era of wildland firefighting is a war with no end in sight.
By Lance Garland

Jonas Smith and his crew drive into the west face of the August Complex Fire in California’s Mendocino National Forest. They’re in Squad 40, a Ford F550 outfitted with a 300-gallon water tank and a cache of firefighting tools, including axes, Pulaskis, chainsaws, and portable fire pumps. It’s a specialized vehicle known to firefighters as a Type 6, or “brush truck”.

Smith is the engine boss of a three-man crew of wildland firefighters that are conducting roving operations in search of spot fires. These small flare-ups spread across the forest floor the way paper burns—sharp lines of flame and ember eat their way across virgin material and leave nothing but ash in their wake. Though they start small, spot fires can climb the trunks of trees and quickly engulf the forest canopy, turning into an inferno that moves faster than the firefighters’ truck.

The crew of Squad 40 has been out here for days, and it’s getting harder to differentiate time as their 24-hour shifts compound and their workload slowly wears them down. Their mission is to keep these spot fires from growing into something bigger, to hold the western front of the August Complex Fire and keep it from moving any closer to nearby towns. Their bodies are covered in a crusty coating of dust, ash, and sweat, and their lungs feel as if they’ve chain-smoked pack after pack of cigarettes. The air is thick with the cremated remains of plants and trees.

Most wildfires these days are ignited by manmade sources, but the August Complex Fire was started by a series of lightning strikes on August 16th and 17th, 2020. The strikes birthed fires that eventually merged into a massive inferno that spread across the forests of northern California. The blaze quickly overwhelmed the local resources, so backup teams from across the country joined the effort. As part of a western Washington strike team, Seattle’s Squad 40 was one such out-of-state crew heeding the call.

This August day in northern California is a hot one, and the smoke casts a haze across the forest landscape, rendering the trees imposing and alien. The limited visibility creates a sense of danger. As they drive the dusty mountain roads, Squad 40 notices a spot fire on a steep slope below them. With their Pulaskis, axes, and fire hose in hand, they traverse down to the burning brush.

As the crew gets the spot fire under control, Smith realizes that they might be a bit overextended. Fatigue and heat exhaustion are setting in. His men need a break, and they need to be capable of extricating themselves if the fire turns on them. Using the fire hoses as ropes, they climb back up to the brush truck, slipping on loose dust and ash.

“Mountain climbing and firefighting!” Smith says, doing his best to keep morale high. “How about we take a break?”

When working long shifts in the field, brief breaks are a luxury, especially when conditions are calm. Smith stands as a lookout while his men dig shallow foxholes in the steep hillside under the shade of unburned trees. These earthen beds are affectionately called coyote camp by the crew. It doesn’t get more primitive than this.

Just 15 minutes pass, and Smith fights his heavy eyelids to keep a constant vigil. Then he hears one of his men yell, “Wolf!”

The men jump to their feet and take shelter in the brush truck. Directly in front of them a hulking beast opens its mouth and bellows: “Moooooooooo.”

The wolf is a cow, and everyone has a good laugh at their sleep-deprived squadmate’s expense.

Later that night, Squad 40 encounters trees that stand as lone torches in the blackness. Embers fly in clouds overhead, flecked across the night sky like the Milky Way. Any one of these embers could ignite the trees that surround them, setting fire like incendiary rounds in battle. The threat is clear and present. Smith, the designated lookout—from the truck this time—notices what he thinks are headlights in the rearview mirror and wonders why any other firefighters would be coming into their operational area. The beams intensify, and he realizes they are not lights at all, but yet more hot spots that have grown to a raging fire. He calls the crew back to attack the new blaze as it lights up their corner of the forest, forming violent shadows that surround and threaten to overtake them.

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